(CNSNews.com) - As the U.N. Security Council debates how to confront Iran over its nuclear activities, the head of the Arab League called on the world's Arab states to pursue "peaceful" nuclear energy programs.
Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the 22-nation bloc, said Arab states should "enter into the nuclear club and make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes with all speed and momentum," according to wire service reports from Khartoum.
Moussa was addressing an Arab League summit in the Sudanese capital, where one of the agenda items was Iran's dispute with the West over its nuclear activities.
The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is using its nuclear energy program as cover for a drive to develop nuclear weapons; Iran denies this, insisting it's for peaceful purposes, and that Iran has every right as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to proceed.
The NPT allows non-nuclear weapons states to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, subject to international inspections and safeguards.
Moussa, on a number of occasions, has publicly supported Tehran, saying that the West was employing a double standard by pressuring Iran while turning a blind eye to Israel. (Israel, which has not signed the NPT, is believed to possess nuclear weapons but has never officially confirmed this.)
Nonetheless, Moussa's call in Khartoum came as a surprise, since the Arab League is not united over Iran and the nuclear issue.
Arab countries further away from the Gulf, such as Moussa's native Egypt, tend to support Iran and are using the dispute to focus attention and international pressure on Israel.
But Arab states near Iran -- a fellow Muslim state but not an Arab one -- are leery of its nuclear activities and worried about safety issues as well as regional instability that could result from the dispute if it remains unresolved.
In clear references to Iran, the six Arab Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar -- have been calling for a Middle East "free of weapons of mass destruction."
The Arab Gulf states, all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), also have a longstanding territorial dispute with Iran over three Iranian-controlled islands in the Gulf; and relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran have been cool for decades.
The differences within the Arab world emerged starkly during a GCC summit in the UAE last December, when GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Al-Attiya urged Iran to join the Gulf group in its pledge to keep the region free of nuclear weapons.
Moussa sent a message urging the Gulf leaders to focus on Israel, drawing a retort from UAE foreign minister Abdullah Al-Nuaimi.
"We share his concerns [about Israel]," Nuaimi said, "but we in the Gulf also have our own concerns and fears [about Iran]." He expressed the hope the Arab League secretary-general would take those concerns into account.
"We are in a region very close to the [Iranian] nuclear reactor in Bushehr," Nuaimi told reporters after the summit. "We have no guarantees or protection against any [radiation] leakage."
Concerns go beyond the environment and safety. Arab political analyst Abdel Wahab Badrakhan says some in the Gulf worry about the repercussions of any U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran.
"How would such a crisis affect the oil market, oil production centers and supplies?" he wrote in an article published Monday by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.
"Will the crisis affect shipping in the Gulf? Will Gulf nationals and expatriates remain calm or will they take to desperate measures? If so, what would be their course of action?"
In Qatar, the Qatar Foundation hosted a debate Tuesday on the topic "Iran is the greatest threat to security in the region." Filmed before an audience of Arab students and others, the debate is scheduled to air on BBC World television this weekend.
Arab states and nuclear power
One of the arguments cited by the U.S. for its suspicions about Iran's nuclear program is that, as OPEC's second biggest oil producer, Iran has no need for nuclear power.
Similar arguments could be made about many oil-rich Arab countries.
Currently no Arab state generates nuclear energy although Egypt has research reactors and authorities there have for decades spoken about wanting to develop nuclear energy.
Egypt joined the NPT in 1981 but is among its most vocal critics.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a private non-proliferation organization, Egypt's research program and activities aimed at developing a nuclear energy program "could provide cover and opportunity for a clandestine nuclear weapons capability."
Western governments have long been concerned about Syria's nuclear ambitions. Also an NPT signatory, Syria has a nuclear research center and has had longstanding agreements with Russia on nuclear energy cooperation.
"Broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities to expand its indigenous capabilities, and we are monitoring Syrian nuclear intentions with concern," the CIA said in an unclassified 2003 report to Congress.
The NTI says there are "strong indications" but little evidence that Syria is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
The exposure in early 2004 of an international nuclear black market run by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan raised concerns that Syria may have been a beneficiary.
However, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) secretary-general Mohamed ElBaradei said later that year there was were no indications of a relationship between Damascus and the Khan network.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last December that every country had a right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology.
Reports have surfaced regularly in recent years about Saudi ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, including allegations of nuclear collaboration between the kingdom and Pakistan.
In February 2005, the Pakistan government sharply denied a report in Time magazine that Khan may have sold nuclear know-how to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others.
Libya is the one Arab country to have admitted to the existence of a nuclear weapons program, developed with the assistance of the Khan network. In December 2003, Tripoli said it would eliminate its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said this week his country would look into the possibility of nuclear power.
It's unclear why such an expensive and complex project should be necessary. Although impoverished by a long and costly civil war, Sudan has significant oil reserves and is becoming an increasingly important exporter.
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